When I first came home to Jakarta after starting my graduate study, one of the most common questions I got from my friends and relatives is, “What do people eat in America?” I honestly had no clue how to respond to this question, since I mostly hung out with other international students and thus we generally shared whichever food we usually ate back home. In addition, I had only lived in Davis for three months before I caved in and bought a ticket home for the year end break.
Prior to the beginning of my fellowship period, I had to attend an orientation for Fulbright grantees. One of the most memorable sessions was about what to expect in the US. The speaker, who was also a former Fulbright grantee, began her talk by asking “When you think of America, what comes to mind?” She then showed a picture of hamburger, pizza, and hotdog on the screen. She proceeded to explain that those were stereotypes. Whatever image we have about the US, it’s a product of mainstream media. In reality, America was all about a mix of culture (well, maybe not anymore if the orange guy got elected).
After staying in Davis a bit longer, I slowly figured out that the she had a valid point. But…I also have to admit that hamburgers are the foundation of America. Raise your hand if you’re an American and you love a good burger.
Hamburgers are crowd pleasers. People love them. Even when I typed in “American food” on Google image search, most of the pictures that came up are that of a burger.
Everyone has an opinion on how to best serve a hamburger. Raw onion or caramelized onion? Ketchup, mayo, mustard, or a combination of all? How about BBQ sauce? Do you like cheese on it? Do you like the bun extra toasted for maximum crispiness, or do you enjoy fluffy pillow of bread? Straight meat patty, or mixed with spices? Rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, or well done cook? The options are endless. Don’t even start with what kinds of fries you like with your burger. Hamburgers can be a prime subject of debate – as I witnessed through the Facebook conversation below.
Burger battle is a real thing. Source: my husband’s timeline.
To think of it, this is just like nasi goreng (fried rice) in Indonesia. It’s popular and there are lots of variations to the dish, but it doesn’t mean we eat nasi goreng every day, right?
In general, I think there are more food options in the US, or at least where I lived and have travelled. Davis is located 15-20 minutes car ride away from a town called Woodland, where everything is next to a taco place. Indeed, the large Mexican population in the West Coast has influenced what counts as local cuisine. California is also a haven for Asian food. Asian groceries are quite easy to find. There are so many Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc restaurants out there, you need to know by experience and by word of mouth which one is Americanized and which one is closer to being authentic. In this country I discovered Laotian and Burmese food, even though geography-wise they are our neighbors in Indonesia.
You haven’t had Filipino food if you haven’t had dinuguan. This pork blood stew is seriously good and not as scary as it may sound. Like, so good I’m salivating as I’m writing this.
Other parts of the country represent a collective of various cultures. For example, in Miami Latin food is more prominent, ranging from Central to South American. Some bakeries even sell all types of empanadas (similar to Indonesian pastel) from Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador and Cuba! The fillings and pastry dough can be different from one country to another. My favorite is the Venezuelan ones, which have crispier dough and spicier meat fillings. Just like in Indonesia, rice is commonly served, with the addition of fried plantains. I surprisingly learned that their chili sauce tends to be spicier than Mexican salsa. Some of the flavors, such in Peruvian food, is also familiar, thanks to their rooted Chinese influence.
All the empanadas you want. Source: laylita.com
Behold, lomo saltado – Peruvian food with Chinese flair. The flavor reminds me of black pepper beef with different presentations.
Go to the South, and you get BBQ. Really good BBQs. We’re talking about the fruit of labor and dedication, slow-cooked meat that require constant attention from dawn to dusk. Pulled pork, brisket, smoked ribs, hot links – all the meat you can eat (and pay for). Side dishes typically include a selection of potato salad, mac and cheese, baked beans, collard greens, dirty rice, and so on. The other counterpart of Southern cuisine will satisfy your cravings for fried food. For reals, Sean and I were starting to crave for a salad after staying three days in Nashville.
Guess who went a bit crazy and ordered a 4-person sample platter?
There are so much more to offer. A lot of Island, Japanese and Filipino influence in Hawaii. Cajun food in Louisiana will make your toes curl. The African American community add soul food into the mix. Indian, Pakistani, and Tibetan food often times get mistaken for each other due to my lack of knowledge. The evolution of bread, cheese, cured meat, and wine is detected throughout the nation. Italian-American food is sporadic. Middle Eastern, Iranian, Afghani food – something I never thought about back home – are easily accessible where I live. These are just to name a few.
Poke bowl is one of the things I miss from the US. Cubes of fish marinated in soy sauce of spicy mayo, served over rice with seaweed salad.
A series of Persian food. A lot of love was put into these dishes.
One of my favorite celebrity chefs, Edward Lee, has a good point of view on American cuisine. A Korean-American who has a passion for whiskey, he is among the many young chefs who are shaping the new definition of American food: there is no exact definition.
The combination of two or more culture in a dish is generally regarded as fusion food. It used to get such a bad rep, or maybe it still does. It’s perceived as the inability to do either cuisine well. Authenticity is king. However, looking at the origin of American cuisine, everything actually comes from another culture. For an instance, Cajun food, which has been known for a long time, is a fusion of French and West African cuisine. Therefore, there is no such thing as authentic American food, and everything is a product of fusion.
That being said, do Americans only eat hamburgers? The answer to that question is yes and no.